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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Lawrence Boadt

An Overview of the Book of Genesis

If we begin our study of the Bible with Genesis, it is important to remember that this is clearly the beginning. Whatever it contains has been chosen and put into place to provide the foundation for all that will follow in the Bible. Although it makes a great story in its own right, it also requires attention to the key themes that it develops if we are to fully understand its purpose. In order to do this effectively, first read quickly the entire fifty chapters, just glancing over them to get the drift of the “plot.” After you have the basic story in mind and have gotten a small taste of its style, or better, its varied styles that change throughout the book, a second detailed study of each section will reveal much more.

The Major Divisions of Genesis

Traditionally scholars have divided Genesis into two parts: chapters 1 through 11 and 12 through 50 . This is based on their subject matter and the type of literature that is found in each part. Both parts appear at first to be a single continuous story, but closer examination reveals strong differences between them. Simply put, the first eleven chapters discuss the process of creation and ideas about the earliest human ancestors as ancients understood them. The second part describes the unique traditions about the concrete clans or tribal ancestors of Israel itself. As literature, Genesis 1–11 is defined as myth, which is a story that attempts to explain some mystery of the relation of the gods (whom we do not know) to the world of humans (which we do know). Every myth is really also a model pattern, either bad or good, of human behavior. Although a myth in form, Genesis 1–11 is often simply called the “primeval history.” In contrast, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis 12–50 are more like legends, in which people recognize events from their past, although they may not have happened exactly the way they are described. They relate individual events as they have been passed down, and which have shaped the special identity of Israel.

Both types of writing give us models to follow but, of course, not in the same way. The world of the primeval history has little in common with what we ourselves experience in the world. It is a special world when things were different and the laws of time and intimacy with the gods were different from our own time. On the other hand, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the others in chapters 12 to 50 wrestle with the same world that we do, and their decisions have consequences, which are concrete and very much part of the later history of a people.

We can perhaps note some differences between them in table at top of next page.

Subdivisions of Genesis 1–50

This two‐part structure can be broken down further into smaller narratives that carry the story forward and are themselves joined by a variety of means that explain how they relate to one another. See table at bottom of next page.

This is only a general sketch. Note how the four major sections of the primal history match four sections of the great founding leaders of Israel. In each the editors were skilled storytellers who wove the parts together to make one whole. But they hardly disguised their intention to show that there are stages in the history of humanity, and in the history of Israel in particular. Each period can have a major impact on the next. For world history, it was the constant spread of sin; for Israel, it was the constant development of blessing.

We could also organize the book around the stages of major figures whom God has summoned forth. Many commentators break the book down into four large blocs or stages:

  • • The prologue: all humankind is called to blessing; but sin prevails (Gn 1–1l )

  • • The story of Abraham and his call, blessing, and promise (Gn 12–25 )

  • • The stories of his son Isaac and grandson Jacob and how they carry on the blessing (Gn 26–36 )

  • • The story of Joseph in Egypt in preparation for God's great self‐revelation in the Exodus (Gn 37–50 )

These four sections indicate clearly enough that the plot of Genesis focuses on major

Genesis 1–11 Genesis 12–50
1. It is set in time that is before human history 1. It is set in historical times well known to ancient records
2. Its exact place is vague—somewhere to the the East 2. It is set in Palestine and Egypt and northern Mesopotamia exactly
3. The persons seem like symbols—nothing is known of their lives 3. The persons have names and engage in actions typical of the second millennium bc
4. Many of the stories have the form of myths like those known from Mesopotamia 4. The stories are largely sagalike or epic narratives similar to oral lore of tribal groups
5. Most of the events seem to take place in a supernatural setting unlike our own 5. The major stories keep events close to the type of experience all human eras share
6. The purpose deals only with the beginnings of humanity long before Israel's time 6. The purpose is to trace the direct tribal and clan ancestors of Israel itself
decisions by key individuals. The unlikely conclusion of the story finds this people apparently in prosperity and blessing somewhere else than where they were promised. In this sense, the book of Genesis can be read as an unfinished plot of a mystery story.

Division by the Special Toledoth Name Lists

The NAB points out in its introduction to Genesis that the book is divided into separate sections by genealogical notices, each of which begins “These are the descendants of …” In the list of eleven below, it should be noted that the NAB is not always consistent in the way it translates the same Hebrew phrase, nor should this particular method of dividing be considered necessarily the most important. It did serve one of the editor's purposes, namely to show that generations come and generations go, but God's plan moves ahead no matter what. Nevertheless, these lists are truly dividers since they often group all the members of a single family line or tribe in one place to mark a break with what has just gone before. Sometimes, however, the list is given before the events, and sometimes at the end. This can easily be discovered by looking up each example:

  • Gn 2, 4a “The descendants of heaven and earth,” that is, the second story of creation, begins after this statement. (Here the NAB refers to it as “the story of the heavens.”

    Genesis 1–3 Genesis 12–25
    The story of God's creation and the first human sin Abraham is chosen to receive God's blessing and give witness to others
    Genesis 4–5 Genesis 21–27
    The evil of sin grows and spreads through the world The son, Isaac, inherits the promise and passes it on
    Genesis 6–9 Genesis 27–36 ; 48–50
    Evil overwhelms the world; God must begin again with a new blessing Jacob in turn receives the promise; he is blessed with and bears the twelve sons who will become Israel
    Genesis 10–11 Genesis 37–50
    People again multiply across the earth but sin persists Joseph brings the promise to Egypt while remaining completely faithful

    Gn 5, 1 “[T]he record of the descendants of Adam,” introduces the long break between the first family and the days of Noah.

  • Gn 6, 9 “[T]he descendants of Noah,” introduces the story of the flood.

  • Gn 10, 1 “[T]he descendants of Noah's sons,” marks the great expansion of peoples all over the world.

  • Gn 11, 10 “[T]he descendants of Shem,” marks the addition of a new list of the nations of the world by the P source.

  • Gn 11, 27 “[These are] the descendants of Terah,” begins the story of Abraham.

  • Gn 25, 12 “[T]he descendants of Abraham's son Ishmael,” closes off the life of Abraham's “other” family through Hagar and Ishmael.

  • Gn 25, 19 “[T]he family history of Isaac,” opens the story of Jacob's birth and destiny.

  • Gn 36, 1 “[T]he descendants of Esau,” ends the role of the second brother, Esau, and directs us to Jacob's children, especially Joseph.

  • Gn 36, 9 This is a repetition within the Esau list, which marks its conclusion.

  • Gn 37, 2 “This is his [Jacob's] family history,” marks the opening of the story of Joseph and his brothers, which goes to the end of Genesis.

The Primeval History in Genesis 1–11

We can now move to a more detailed analysis of the book. In studying these early chapters, several aspects should be noted: (1) They are generally described by form criticism as a combination of myths and genealogical tables. (2) They are described by source criticism as a combination of passages from the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. (3) Many of the individual stories have parallel narratives that are known from other ancient Near Eastern peoples, often much older than the biblical version. (4) The final masterpiece has its own purpose and beauty that makes it much more than just a collection of myths and genealogy lists.

J and P Sources

If we remember that the J stories are probably much older than the P stories, and at first stood alone as the basic proclamation of the beginnings of the world, we can first glance at each group separately. See chart on RG 103 .

It might be noted that there are several duplications in these lists: both J and P have a list of great ancestors between Adam and Noah ( 4, 17–26 vs. 5, 1–32 ); both have a flood story, which is now hopelessly intermixed as a single account; and both have a Table of Nations that spread over the earth in Genesis 10–11 , which is also interwoven as a single narrative list.

The Theology of the Yahwist Source

If we look at the incidents chosen by the J source to tell its story of creation and the first humans, we find that they generally center on the tension between God's goodness given to the earth and the human response of disobedience. Each story—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the angels and the women, the wicked generation of the flood, the sons of Noah, those who build the tower of Babel—all are given ample signs of God's love and bountiful providence as they fill the earth. Even so, each generation rises in disobedience according to one of the deadly vices: greed, envy, lust, pride.

The author uses a general pattern that structures the stories:

  • • God acts lovingly toward humanity,

  • • people disobey God and sin,

  • • God announces punishment,

  • • the punishment is given,

  • • God ends in compassion by bestowing mercy and a new blessing.

In the repetition of the pattern over and over again, J emphasizes how humanity as a whole has failed to respond to the intimate relationship of a God who once spoke to them face to face. Instead they have spread the practice of sin until it contaminated all people. Even after a new beginning following the flood, they continued to sin boldly, as is evident by the fact that God ended up confusing their languages in Gn 11, 1–9 . God's hope for faithfulness and obedience from the humans in his image and likeness, and his desire to speak with them face to face, will have to take a new form; that form will be the choice of a single family or nation, through Abraham, which will respond to God's goodness and teach other people. That new promise will open chapter 12 .

(tenth century BC) (seventh to sixth centuries BC)
Gn l, 1–2, 4a
The creation of the world
Gn 2, 4b—3, 24
The human condition at creation, and sin
Gn 4, 1–26
Cain and Abel: even the children sin but God continues to care
Gn 5, 1–32
The list of long-lived ancestors from Adam to Noah
Gn 6, 1–4
More evil caused by the sin of angels and humans
Gn 6, 5–9, 29 Gn 6, 5–9, 29
The flood story with 40 days and 7 pairs of clean animals, etc. The flood story based on 365 days and one pair of each animal only, etc.
Gn 10, 1–7.20–24
Table of all the nations
Gn 10, 8–19.25–30
Table of Nations from a different source
Gn 11, 1–9
The story of the tower of Babel
Gn 11, 10–32
The continuation of the Table of Nations down to Abraham

The Theology of the Priestly Source

We can assume that the priestly writers knew and accepted the basic J account of sin, punishment, and grace in the ages before Abraham. But they also knew that the later J promises to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob might be interpreted as a promise of international power and rule over other peoples, such as David and his family had exercised. Since P wrote in the sixth century BC, after Israel had known the defeat and loss of ten of the twelve tribes in 722, and the other two were in exile in Babylon from 598 to 539, they wished to refocus even the creation stories to emphasize the sovereign rule of God guiding the entire universe and constantly giving blessings much larger in scope than merely to Israel. Thus in chapters 1 and 9 , when God first establishes and then reestablishes the order and purpose of creation, P writes in solemn proclamations, such as the litany of the days of creation in chapter 1 , the great dignity of humans created as the image of God ( 1, 27 and 9, 6 ) to populate (sharing in creation?) and govern the earth, the arbitrary and majestic creation by God's word alone, the description of the flood in terms of the solar year, and even the mighty signs in nature like the rainbow. P places the story of humankind against a vast cosmic setting as a preface to the sordid and messy succeeding history of the world and even of Israel itself.

The very neatly ordered genealogies of chapters 5 and 10–11 , which record the enormous life spans of the early heroes of the earth, are also part of P's insistence that God has a plan that is not subject to human whims nor even upset by human sin. God's rule is so vast that humans must learn trust! P stresses that divine blessing can always be relied on, even as it includes the J story in which punishment follows all sin. P has enlarged the J vision from finding God anew in every crisis to reassurance that God's providence was always at work—a perfect answer to an exiled Israel, despairing that God really stood by them in their times of defeat.

The Overall Message of Genesis 1–11

The act of combining J and P, as well as all the additions and refinements made by others, including the final editors who put it all together, provided a double emphasis: (1) the eternal goodness of the creator, and (2) the moral demand on humans to obey the divine plan and come to know God. It is no accident that God begins creation by speaking the world into being and seeing that all of it is good. Nor is it accidental that God then speaks to each of the first generations—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, and finally Abraham—with directives. In turn, these stories and directives now stand as a prologue to the whole body of Torah teaching that fills the latter part of the Pentateuch.

The pattern of divine goodness and moral imperative established in Genesis 1–11 also demand that proper worship be given to God alone. Both J and P use familiar Near Eastern myths in order to slyly attack pagan practices (such as the way J ridicules the excessive worship of the supposed supernatural power of serpents in Gn 3 ). Each story intends to show that only the moral goodness of God is an adequate basis for worship, and that most Canaanite religious practices and beliefs pervert God's plan.

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